“Foreword: On Rereading”
by Anne Fadiman
from Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love
My son, Griffin, who is nine, recently appeared as Peter in his drama club’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
I wanted to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to him and his brother, Rowan (almost 5), before they met the bowdlerized stage version, so we spent several nights escaping through the back of the cupboard with Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the story, four siblings find a passage to a frozen land called Narnia at the back of a cupboard. Narnia is frozen because it is under the thrall of the White Witch, but the appearance of the four human children heralds the fulfillment of a prophecy that will see the great lion Aslan return to Narnia, melt the neverending winter freeze, and vanquish the White Witch. In the process of this triumph, Edmund is seduced by the White Witch, by means of enchanted Turkish delight, betrays his siblings and is only saved from death and dishonour by Aslan’s offering to die in his place. Aslan is duly killed by the white witch but comes back to life thanks to a bit of old magic that promises eternal life to those who die to redeem others.)
The timing seemed perfect, not just because of Griffin’s upcoming performance, but because winter was loosening its grip on us here in Toronto, and the great thaw in Narnia was mirrored on our own street, in our own garden. There was a new smell to greet us when we opened the front door to go to school each morning, damp earth and warmth, and I liked ending the day going through the magical cupboard door, with its powerful sensory reminders of spring’s arrival.
I cannot remember when I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Unlike Anne Fadiman and Laura Miller, I do not have clear memories of reading or being read the Narnia books, but I also cannot remember a time when I could look at the big wardrobe in my grandmother’s bedroom without thinking that it led to another world. The possibility of infinite regress out of the back of the musty cupboard, like Alice’s looking glass and rabbit hole, just always seemed there, and I was looking forward to my boys’ initiation into this realm of possibility.
I was prepared, also, for the disillusionment of rereading, for the discontinuity I knew to expect between my own and the boys’ perception of Narnia. Anne Fadiman, in her Foreword to Rereadings, and Laura Miller, in her The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, both eloquently recount their disillusionment with Narnia on rereading the books as adults, and I had their experiences fresh in my mind.
Here is what Anne Fadiman has to say about reading another of the Narnia books to her eight-year-old son:
Reading a favorite book to your child is one of the most pleasurable forms of rereading, provided the child’s enthusiasm is equal to yours and thus gratifyingly validates your literary taste, your parental competence, and your own former self. Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and two talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north. It’s the most suspenseful of the Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but can glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet: how about another page, and then, how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence? There was only one problem with this idyllic picture. As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C. S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig. …
It was difficult to read this kind of thing to Henry without comment: the words, after all were coming to him in my voice. I held my tongue for the first hundred pages or so, but finally I blurted out, “Have you noticed that The Horse and His Boy isn’t really fair to girls? And that all the bad guys have dark skin?” … Henry shot me the sort of look he might have used had I dumped a pint of vinegar into a bowl of chocolate ice cream. And who could blame him?
I love how she gets at the complexity of the emotion of herself as a re-reader: gratification, smugness, pleasure and pain. What costs us our own (adult) total immersion in the books we loved as children is our education:
Your education becomes an interrogation lamp under which the hapless book, its every wart and scar exposed, confesses its guilty secrets: “My characters are wooden! My plot creaks! I am pre-feminist, pre-deconstructivist, and pre-postcolonialist!” (The upside of English classes is that they give you critical tools, some of which are useful, but the downside is that those tools make you less able to shower your books with unconditional love….)
Not wanting my boys to look at me like I had poured vinegar on their ice cream, I kept my education and my criticisms to myself. I reveled, instead, in what Lewis’s book offered my senses: the taste of Turkish delight, magically enhanced to an addictive state, the feel of fur against a cheek, the crunch of snow underfoot, the sound of frozen streams coming to life.
When we had only a few chapters left to go, my mother died, suddenly of a heart attack, and I was not sure I’d make it through the last chapters of Aslan’s sacrifice and reincarnation. The real and the fictional spring were too much of an assault on my senses, too much of a stark contradiction to my mother’s death. Aslan’s death was too much of a parallel to the awful fact of our family’s loss. As a long-lapsed Catholic, I did not take comfort in Aslan’s apotheosis. For me, there was only the cold, bare fact of my mother’s absence.
It is true that you can never return to the innocence of a first, childhood reading, but I did not expect to be deprived of an attachment to Narnia in so stark a loss. I did finish reading the book to the boys, and was, frankly, numb to Aslan’s appeal to the children’s loyalty. I felt excluded, not on the basis of education, but simple incomprehension. How, with apparently so thin a description, did Lewis manage to inspire his readers and his characters with love for Aslan? The boys did not ask many questions about the Old Magic that brought Aslan and Narnia back to life, and I did not offer explanations.
I took comfort, instead, in the warmth of the boys’ bodies curled up next to mine, and in the fact that their Grandma’s love of reading seems firmly to have taken root and blossomed in the fertile soil of her grandsons’ imaginations.